The wonders of Ecuador go far beyond the Galápagos Islands. This South American country, roughly the size of Colorado, offers astonishing contrasts well worth experiencing. Ecuador will beguile you with volcanic peaks, cloud forests and jungles. You’ll revel over some of the most fantastic train rides in the world, colonial cities with centuries of history and exceptional places to stay — from traditional to ultra modern.
In cities such as Quito, 16th-century architecture blends seamlessly with contemporary design, exemplified by five-star heritage hotels and restaurants where chefs create new frontiers in cuisine combining traditional ingredients with the most sophisticated genius. In addition, Ecuador ardently protects their ecosystems’ biodiversity, the panoply of colors, feathers and calls among the 1,600 bird species as well as the splendor of over 25,000 species of flora found within numerous national parks and reserves. Let us show you a different side of Ecuador, the mainland, where culture and unparalleled natural magnificence meet.
QUITO: ECUADOR’S CAPITAL HILL
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, built into the side of a mountain at an altitude of 9,000 feet above sea level, is encircled by granite peaks over 15,000 feet high. You will immediately feel Quito’s 1,000-plus-year history as soon as you arrive. Quito was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978 and was the first city to ever receive such a designation. The Incas ruled here from 1463 and, over time, Quito became the northern capital of their mighty empire. The heritage of the Incas and indigenous people of Ecuador lives today in the culture, food, art and traditions.
Start your visit in the colonial sector of Quito, strolling through squares such as Plaza Grande and Plaza Santo Domingo. The cobble streets wind past elaborate baroque church façades, pushcarts selling artisanal ice cream and boutiques with native textiles and crafts. The Spanish influence is undeniable, with over 30 Catholic churches paying homage to the arrival of the Spanish in 1534. The Basilica del Voto Nacional is one sure to catch your eye, with gargoyles in the form of native wildlife such as pumas, tortoises, penguins and monkeys guarding the doors as you enter. Climb the steps to the top of what’s considered Latin America’s largest neo-gothic church to take in impressive views from the rooftops. The Church of San Francisco is another one of Quito’s grand displays, spanning nearly two blocks, with the church’s atrium stretching the entire length of the eponymous plaza. Inside, your gaze is drawn toward the heavens at a lapis blue gilt cupola centered over the main altar. See the church museum’s collection of colonial art and walk through the labyrinth of courtyards. In the delightful shade fronting this imposing church, listen to local musicians test the acoustics of The Plaza San Francisco, the former site of a massive Inca market. Completing this trinity of impressive cathedrals is a visit to the Sistine Chapel of Quito, the Jesuit church of La Compañía, a 1765 baroque masterpiece lorded over by intricately carved columns and a relief sun over the door originally designed to draw the native Incas — as the sun was one of their most important deities.
Over the years, the commercial heart of Quito has migrated North from the historic colonial center. Seek out the trove of museums tucked in amongst the banks, high rises and residential neighborhoods. The Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana serves as Ecuador’s top museum and is a world-class complex for pre-Inca pottery and gold decorative art, while The Sala de Arte Colonial boasts a bevy of paintings from the Spanish Colonial period. A must-visit amongst these metropolitan museums is La Capilla del Hombre, exhibiting enormous paintings by Oswaldo Guayasimín, Ecuador’s most celebrated 20th-century artist.
For a glimpse of nature’s creations, take a breathtaking ride on the Teleférico, gondola cable cars fit for six passengers that whisk you from 9,200 feet to over 12,000 feet in minutes. From the top, witness the snow-capped mountain peaks, Cayambe and Cotopaxi, as well as other volcanic range wonders in the distance. Quito’s metropolitan area spreads out below, a miniature of the marvels you have been admiring up-close. Later, memorialize your visit to the crossroads of the northern and southern hemisphere by taking a photo on the painted equator at the Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world), the Equatorial Monument and place most celebrated for paying tribute to the ring around the earth.
Return to your home in Quito, the Casa Gangotena, a 31-room former colonial-style mansion situated facing Plaza San Francisco. You’ll be transported into a world of reverie as you admire the intricate details handcrafted by over 500 artisans in the 1920s, restoring this former Gangotena family estate back to its original glory. This luxury hotel maintains an intimate and opulent ambience, with warm-hued interiors, painted tin ceilings and art deco furnishings. As your day draws to an end, relax in your suite, sipping a maracuyá (passion fruit) cocktail while you take in views of the Pichincha Volcano illuminated by the pastel shades of crepuscular light.
CLOUD FOREST: UNEARTHLY ESCAPADES
Ecuador’s Cloud Forest is a magical place, even more romantic than its name already suggests. Spend a leisurely afternoon heading north from Quito to arrive upon the Cloud Forest’s finest gateway: the ultra-modern and sustainable Mashpi Lodge. As you enter the property, dozens of hummingbirds greet your arrival from the flowering gardens. You’ll feel like you’ve entered a fairy utopia, with over 3,200 acres of protected rainforest dedicated to the Mashpi Lodge. The three-story contemporary design, like an aviary tucked in amongst the lush green surrounds, offers floor-to-ceiling glass views from all 22 rooms and suites. In the Yaku Suite, sink down into your Philippe Starck tub and let the birds’ morning serenade set the tone for your day in nature. After a breakfast topped with herbs straight from the jungle and fruit from the tropical orchard, set out on the extensive trail systems to explore this bioreserve, which now serves as a center of conservation and scientific research.
The lodge offers hikes tailored to all levels, but we highly recommend mustering the strength for the challenging trek to the San Vicente Waterfall, which will reward you with its healing mist mingled with dappled sunshine — a vision you will forever preserve in your memory. Daybreak also serves as the optimal time to set out on the Howler Monkey Trail to the Life Centre to enjoy a picnic breakfast on the deck while thousands upon thousands of butterflies flutter around you. Learn about the over 200 species of butterflies identified and see dozens of varieties of orchids. Thanks to the cameras strategically placed throughout the forest to aid research efforts, you are also privy to witnessing rare animals that roam the reserve’s paths freely when no humans are present, like the nocturnal puma. The trails become even more ethereal under the blanket of darkness. During your guided night walk, your naturalist will point out tiny glass frogs with bodies no bigger than a dime and translucent bellies, rare foxfire that glows with neon-green luminescence and a host of nighttime butterflies and beautifully decorated moths the size of open palms.
The ways to experience this dreamlike setting are endless, from riding the resort’s soon-to-open cable car to peddling the two-person Sky Bike, a zip-line adventure taking you almost 200 feet in the air at its highest point. Spy on the forest inhabitants below, like the tayra-an, a shiny, chocolate colored, otter-like creature and even an elusive ocelot, smallest in the leopard family. At the end of the day, return to the resort’s sleek interiors for a massage and soak in the Jacuzzi at the Wellness Centre before enjoying a decadent gourmet experience in the two-story dining room — the menu changing harmoniously with the seasons to harness the freshest of flavors. As you revel the single-source organic Ecuadorian chocolate melting in your mouth, it becomes clear that life the Cloud Forest defies reality.
HIGH ANDES AND VOLCANOES REGION: PINNACLE PURSUITS
Just the mention of the high Andes ignites your imagination with images of snow-capped mountains, clear, thin air carrying sounds of wooden flutes and the rhythmic gallop of horses ridden by chagras (traditional Andean cowboys). These mountains traverse Ecuador from south to north, providing a decorative belt of volcanic beauty. Among more than 20 active volcanoes in Ecuador, Cotopaxi is the epitome of conical symmetry — towering over 19,000 feet above sea level, thus making it the highest active volcano in the world. Drive to the lookout point Cotopaxi National Park, where the valleys unfurl below you 12,000 feet. For an even better view of the peak, hike from here to the visitors’ center and a small refuge at 16,000 feet where, soaring overhead, you might be lucky enough to spot the Harpy Eagle — the world’s most powerful eagle considered the “Jaguar of the Sky.” From here, the snow line serves as the starting point for serious climbers attempting a summit.
For the most epic entrée into these highlands, nothing surpasses rail travel along the famed Trans-Andean Railway connecting the coast to Quito. The extreme terrain heaves with sudden elevation changes that once deemed it unsurpassable by train — a 30-year endeavor finally realized in 1908. Experience one of the most impressive stretches of track during a four to five hour adventure through “The Devil’s Nose,” showcasing a series of awe-inspiring hairpin turns. However, it’s your four-day journey aboard modernized luxury rail service Tren Crucero that gives you a fuller appreciation for this engineering feat. Follow the historic route between Quito and Guayaquil, paralleling the Avenue of Volcanoes and skirting river gorges. Stops along the way and overnights at charming haciendas idyllically complement this scenic beauty with cultural immersion. Hike solidified lava flows pooling at the base of Cotopaxi, savor lunch at a traditional ranch and shop at a local market where traders still barter with an exchange of goods. Meet an ice trader who shows you how he carves glacial ice from the slopes of Chimborazo Volcano and learn about the customs of the coastal Shuar community in Bucay.
Another high point of your visit to this region will likely be your stay at Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, at 10,000 feet above sea level and less than two hours south of Quito. Despite this elevated location, you’ll feel nestled in the valley between surrounding volcanoes. The owner, Mrs. Mignon Plaza, greets you upon arrival to this historic hacienda, an enclave of courtyards and historic buildings constructed around the ruins of a former Incan palace dating back over 500 years. Savor regional dishes like locro (cheese and potato) soup and grilled trout as you admire ancient Inca stones dotting the main courtyard off the dining room, instilling you an undeniable sense of place. Inspired by your evening meal, set out to hook your own trout during a fishing expedition in one of the nearby freshwater streams. Then, end your day warming yourself by the fireplace located in one of the 11 uniquely appointed rooms. Our favorite rooms are the five comprised within the historic section of the hacienda, which epitomize the charm and grace of ancient times with stone brick walls and wooden-beamed ceilings.
As you head further south, stop to marvel at Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest mountain, at 20,500 feet — the peak soaring higher than any mountain in North America. Dedicated 30 years ago as a reserve to protect some of Ecuador’s last remaining herds of wild llamas, Chimborazo is within what feels like arm’s reach at Estrella del Chimborazo. This small lodge is comprised of just two four-room cabins and a main house for gathering and leisurely dinners. This summer, four new luxurious suites add a touch of opulence to your stay along the old “Royal Road” between Guyaquil and Quito. But whether your accommodations are rustic or regal, there’s something overwhelmingly special and liberating about feeling as if you’re on top of the world at 13,000 feet, with nothing but nature surrounding you as far as the eye can see. For a life-altering experience — and readied with equipment supplied by the lodge — set out with a guide and porter at midnight to summit Chimborazo when the sun peaks over the horizon. It’s a climb made by Estrella del Chimborazo’s owner and manager, Marco Cruz, over 600 times. This climbing legend has touched the peaks of the highest mountains on every single continent, and during your stay at his lodge (whether making the climb or not), you will feel as though you’ve reached an extraordinary pinnacle.
Venturing to the highlands two hours northeast of Quito, you’ll discover another treasure hidden within a stunning Andes-ensconced valley, Hacienda Zuleta. The family estate of former president of Ecuador, the late Galo Plaza Lasso, this 17th-century hacienda only recently opened its doors as a hotel. Immediately sense the presidential prestige, with the 14 rooms appointed with heirlooms and fireplaces. The stable is home to 20 specially bred horses that will take you on gallops across the grassy fields, high-altitude trails and to pre-Inca pyramids dating back to 1200 A.D. Taste Ecuadorian cheese at the resort’s very own creamery, hike one of the many trails or visit an Andean Condor rehabilitation center. Not far from Hacienda Zuleta is Otavalo, Ecuador’s most celebrated town for Ecuadorian handicrafts — try to plan a Saturday visit if possible, when the artistry is on full display.
These are a few of the many amazing experiences Ecuador’s mainland has to offer. Let us help you create a custom-tailored journey to discover some of South America’s lesser-known treasures.